Text and photos By MATT CHURCHILL
To all the major scriptural religions, Jerusalem is considered the gateway to heaven, but my all-time favorite tour is one that will get you thoroughly acquainted with its earthly dimensions. There is no better way to cover more ground and see the holy city from the best angles than by bicycle.
It's also the perfect introduction tour. You hop on the bikes in the new part of the city before anybody is awake, it's like you have it all to yourself. Cycling through some of first historic neighborhoods, you then arrive at the creamy, limestone walls. The beautiful old city stands before you containing the four quarters. You enter through the iconic Jaffa Gate, past the Citadel and into the Christian quarter.
Some of the oldest denominations live huddled against the holiest site in the world for Christianity: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The building enshrines the hillside where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead according to the New Testament. In the afternoon the church will be thronged with pilgrims, but we enter now as the doors have just been opened to get a feeling of the sacred space.
We continue by bike through the major Roman cardo which was covered by the Crusaders and shuttered with spice stalls by the Turks. Upwards and onwards, we race to a rooftop overlook in time for dawn. Arabic coffee with cardamom is being cooked on a finjan as the sun rises over the Mount of Olives to the east.
Get ready for speed as we cycle into the valley that separates the upper western hill and the Temple mount.
After daybreak, we weave our way through the Armenian and Jewish neighborhoods pointing out the important sites. But get ready for speed as we cycle into the valley that separates the upper western hill and the Temple mount. The impressive Herodian stones that support the platform come into view. Crowning the peak is the Dome of the Rock, glimmering with gold and clothed in marble and faience. Built by Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in 691 CE, it is one of the earliest Islamic shrines in the world.
Turning through Dung Gate, the Aqsa Mosque comes into full view along with the layers underneath it. Excavations have unveiled the monumental staircase that led up to the Temple in the time of King Herod in the First Century BCE. Also revealed are the massive stones that were hurled down by the Romans in the year 70 CE. The Western Wall is the holiest site in the world for the Jewish people because it represents the last vestiges of architecture from the Temple still standing in its place. The remains of the original house of worship built by King Solomon is hidden somewhere beneath the esplanade of Haram al-Sharif.
Next we zip over the Kidron Valley on the east side of the old city to glimpse at the famous churches and ancient cemeteries lining the Mount of Olives. We then climb up the terraces of olive orchard to Mt. Scopus. Behind the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is a stunning promenade that looks out to the desert. Finally you understand Jerusalem's relationship with the Judean wilderness where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered near the road to Jericho.
A day at the Dead Sea will have to wait for another excursion because we get back on the bikes and ride through the Muslim quarter for a tasty falafel. Or, if you prefer, we can get you back to your hotel in time for a bountiful breakfast. And believe me, you will have a great appetite after the Jerusalem Sunrise Cycling tour!
Matt Churchill is a licensed tour guide who specializes in all things Jerusalem and can be reached at his website churchillisraeltours.com.
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